Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Civic Friendship in the midst of Consumerism

Neoliberalism, concisely explained, is a policy model that places and value and importance on free trade and a competitive free market that has as little interference from the state as possible. The promotion of these values (freedom, competition, etc.) is heavily backed by the belief of many people that a neoliberal economy is ideal for our advancement and well-being as humans. In our past reading of philosophers and theologians such as Paul Wadell, we encountered the idea that freedom and equality cannot exist hand-in-hand—that absolute freedom would inevitably come and the cost of absolute equality (and vice versa).[1] Understanding this, and also paying attention to neoliberalism’s adamant protection of freedom in all its applicable capacities, then some questions arise as to the true nature of neoliberalism and what its outcome in society will be. Civic friendship, on the other hand, is the good will present between fellow citizens. It can be described as the way people relate to each other in the public sphere, especially regarding matters that are pertinent to that realm of life. In class, we spoke about how civic friendship doesn’t require any in-person assembly of citizens to exist and thrive, rather, it just requires we be “1) aware of the nature of the population, the general way of life, and their standard of living, 2) concerned about their welfare, and 3) [willing] to help fellow citizens through taxes, public means for all poor, and helping in time of crisis.”[2] Civic friendship, similar to acquaintanceship, does not actually require close personal relationships between people, only the intention of support and good will. Civic friendship serves to strengthen societal bonds and create an atmosphere of trust and care within a society—two virtues that are vital in order to promote strong bonds.

In his book, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, Todd May postulates that the presence of neoliberal economics has transformed people into either consumers, entrepreneurs, or both (at various points), and as a result, has turned all forms of relationships (be they personal, political, economic, or social) into potential ‘markets’.[3] The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, people all identifying as either consumers or entrepreneurs alters the way they relate to both themselves, and the society around them. This means that humans identifying themselves as consumers allows them to consume and consume without having to think about who they are outside of that identity, while humans who identify themselves as entrepreneurs are encouraged to calculate their value as a person based on their capital returns. This is neither a healthy nor sustainable way for people to live. The second problem is that in neoliberalism’s promotion of this social binary, friendship for pleasure and utility have become more mainstream as consumers gravitate only towards that which brings them immediate pleasure, and entrepreneurs gravitate towards that which will prove useful in increasing their capital returns. May suggest that deep friendship can be a way through which we counteract the effects of neoliberal consumerism, and he describes deep friendship as friendship that involves regard for the other, passion, a past, and true meaningfulness.[4]

In her article, Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship, Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach writes about productive and reproductive labor. Productive labor is explained as labor that is done “for the sake of its product,” and Schwarzenbach gives the examples of “the sculpting of a statue (artisan work), agricultural mixing one’s labor with the soil (as in Locke), or laboring for a wage (as in a modern factory).”[5] These are all forms of work in which the direct goal is money or a product that can be monetized, very differently from reproductive labor, where the direct goal of the labor is the forming of relationships, usually resulting in the promotion of friendship. On reproductive labor, Schwarzenbach writes:

“In ethical reproductive labor and praxis, the goal of the activity is not in the first instance an appropriation of the physical world at all, but of what might be called the human social one: it is the creation, furtherance or reproduction of a relationship. Here one must include taking care of the young, tending the sick and old, but also the support of those in their prime: in general, the soothing of fears, the nurturing of talents, the fortifying of hopes, practical doing for the other or simply enjoying their talents and abilities. In all these cases, the concern is with their good together with the nature of our relationship to them: in the ideal case, on my analysis, these relationships fall under the heading of friendship as end in itself.”[6]

Schwarzenbach heavily supports a focus on reproductive labor in society rather than productive labor, understanding that when reproductive labor upheld, the societal question then shifts from ‘what can you produce?’ to ‘what kind of relationships do you have, and with whom?’[7] And in the interest of promoting civic friendship, Schwarzenbach believes that friendships based on difference are an ideal mode of doing do. In a society that encourages reproductive labor, friendship based on difference actually becomes an ideal form of friendship.

[1] Paul J Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

[2] Jafar Mahallati, ‘Civic Friendship,’ (class lecture, Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Oberlin College, King, April 16th, 2019).

[3] Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, Lexington Books, 2012.

[4] Jafar Mahallati, ‘Neoliberal Economics and Deep Friendship,’ (class lecture, Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Oberlin College, King, April 16th, 2019).

[5] Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, Solidarity and Civic Friendship,” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies 3, no. 1 (2015): p. 7.

[6] Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, Solidarity and Civic Friendship,” p. 7.

[7] Jafar Mahallati, ‘Civic Friendship,’ (class lecture, Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Oberlin College, King, April 16th, 2019).

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